Wearable technology to aid disaster relief

Wearable, interactive 3D technology being developed by the University of South Australia will be able to transfer people into 'mobile augmented reality (AR) systems.'

Weighing in at 7kg, the technology consists of a computer which can be carried in a backpack, virtual reality goggles and an attached video camera that can convey information to a control room via wireless LAN or 3G networks.

Professor Bruce Thomas, director of the wearable computer laboratory at the university, said the technology has the potential to dramatically improve the effectiveness of disaster relief operations.

"By wearing the computers with virtual reality goggles and video cameras attached, field operatives at the problem location work in real-time with supervisors and experts in a central control room," Thomas said.

"People in the field provide digital images, videos, and voice information which are then geospatially mapped to data sources in the control room."

The control centre can also create 3D maps and images for field personnel to view via their goggles.

"If particular experts aren't available in the disaster area, they can direct field staff from the control centre. For example, suppose a chemical plant is required to be shut down, an expert in the control centre can view the situation via the field operative's wearable technology, and give directions to the field staff on how to close the plant, even circling which lever to operate in the field operative's view through the goggles," Thomas said.

The project consists of three components: the indoor visualization control room, the outdoor wearable AR system, and collaboration between the indoor and outdoor systems.

Thomas said although his team has had a number of years experience developing and investigating control room technologies for intense collaboration applications, such as defence planning, this solution has some differences.

"There are a number of critical areas, [where this project is different] such as visualization of real-time information from one or more people in field, directing people in the field, communicating with people in the field with AR information, and the presentation of data in a temporal, coherent fashion," he said.

The technology has a other potential uses, such as in viticulture or defence, Thomas said.

The project has been in development for over seven years and it would cost $50,000 for the university to build the complete system.

There is nothing like this on the market at the moment, Thomas said, and the closest research projects are MARS (http://www1.cs.columbia.edu/graphics/projects/mars/) from Colombia University and BARS from the US Naval Research Lab (http://www.nrl.navy.mil/pao/pressRelease.php?Y=2001&R=01-01r).

Professor Thomas will detail this project and its applications at the South East Asian Regional Computer Confederation 2005 Conference (SEARCC 05), in Sydney, from September 28 to 30, 2005.

The conference is being organized by IDG on behalf of SEARCC and the Australian Computer Society. For more information about SEARCC 05, and to register for the event, see www.searcc05.com.au.

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Dahna McConnachie

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